Amid a refugee crisis unprecedented since World War II, one Boise native is on the front lines in faraway Serbia, where hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing a civil war at home await entry into the European Union. Kelsey Montzka-Boettiger, a Boise State University graduate, has seen firsthand the severity of the situation and the rigors of applying for refugee status in the United States—belying the fears of some that the Gem State runs the risk of admitting terrorists into the country through the College of Southern Idaho's refugee center.
Montzka-Boettiger first studied in Serbia as a Fulbright Scholar and returned to pursue a master's degree at the University of Nis. She currently volunteers with Refugee Aid Serbia in Belgrade, and the Youth Office in Presevo.
When Boise Weekly reached Montzka-Boettiger in Belgrade via Skype, the border situation was still fluid, with nations like Croatia and Hungary alternating between allowing a trickle of refugees to enter their countries and closing off their borders entirely.
What's your connection to the refugee crisis going on in Europe?
My purpose in being here isn't strictly for refugees but, as the crisis unfolded, it morphed into that. [Refugee Aid Serbia is] a citizen-organized humanitarian setup. We're working with some local volunteers in the region.
What are some of the stresses you deal with as a volunteer?
The practice of it is having to emotionally steel yourself to re-center the broader picture when you're working because it's very easy to get caught up in the moment and be overwhelmed by the emotional exhaustion. It's exhausting work for all parties. We're primarily there to assist people who have experienced significantly more emotional trauma.
Can you give us a sense of the people you work with and the things you do as a volunteer?
The program in Belgrade, at least, is primarily serving a makeshift camp that showed up near the bus station, so more and more people started sleeping in the park there. The park around the bus station and across the street has a makeshift camp, essentially. An organizer for a small sort of club and venue and independent art district that's very close to this area started an open-air venue so they have clothing distribution in one portion and shoe distribution. We also have a packing station for food. They get a predecided amount of food, clean water and hygiene. There's a tea and hot coffee station and a solar charging station for smartphones. That comes in waves. Since this is a volunteer effort and there's no formalized assistance, it means we have to solicit and pass the word around ourselves, letting people know in the parks that they can get these items. They come in waves depending on who discovers us, and they take the world back to their small community.
What role is technology playing in these events?
It's playing a crucial role. Smartphones have been used and social media has been used to provide translation services. There's actually a cache of documents and a preset website people are handing out to refugees on business cards. Refugees are using them to keep in touch with family, location services. Things are virtually tagged. If something's tagged #refugeeswelcome, people will find a map of Belgrade with translations into Arabic for a local mosque; bus stations; bus times; what you can expect for a fair price, since many taxi cabs are taking advantage of the situation. In Croatia, there was information disseminated about minefields since there were still minefields left over and citizens were concerned about refugees running into that.
How are the locals responding to the situation?
It's mixed. Primarily the reaction is positive. As a friend pointed out to me, society is still here, it's still very contingent on authority. And since the Serbian government has taken a stridently positive stance toward refugees, that has influenced the culture.
What are some of the stresses facing the government and locals?
As far as the government, Serbia is not a part of the EU, so they have less access to funding. Most of the aid to refugees has come from private sources and NGOs because they really don't have the funding to take care of this. As far as stress on the locals, this has been a boon for some sectors in that local markets are getting more business, and you have people trying to take advantage of this and artificially inflating prices.
Has religion been a source of tension between refugees and locals?
There's the occasional sharing of the ISIS viral video phenomenon, but really not as much. A lot of refugees aren't aware of the mosque here and they haven't been going despite the efforts of the local Islamic community.
There are some Idahoans who are worried ISIS may use a refugee crisis to find a way into the U.S.
It's absolutely preposterous to assert it in terms of the United States. Within my three months of working here you see the decks—the stacks—of paperwork and background checks and letters of recommendation that get people into the United States. Rumors that people aren't being adequately screened are patently ridiculous. This shouldn't stop us from being humanitarian toward people. The vast majority of these people don't like ISIS. They don't like Assad.